IMO this just goes to show, yet again, how little our federal government cares for its people.
HARRISBURG AWAITS A COURTHOUSE SITE IN LIMBO
Sunday, June 25, 2006
BY JOHN LUCIEW
Of The Patriot-News
It's the kind of development most cities would dig out their golden shovels for, all the better for the ceremonial ground breaking.
It's a $100 million investment that would employ hundreds and attract scores more doing business. It is expected to spawn a spate of businesses, everything from eateries and coffee shops to copying centers.
There's just one catch: This project is a federal courthouse for Harrisburg, and the U.S. government is calling virtually all the shots when it comes to locating, designing and constructing the 263,000-square-foot building.
Mayor Stephen R. Reed, usually a shepherd of development in the city, has seen both of his suggested locations -- tracts on North Sixth and South Second streets -- rejected by the feds.
A chorus of community complaints has surrounded all three locations selected by the U.S. General Services Administration last year. The sites are at Verbeke and North Sixth streets, North Sixth and Basin streets, and North Third and Forster streets.
All have homes and apartments. The Third Street site includes businesses, clubs and restaurants, along with historic structures. The buildings would have to come down to make way for a courthouse to replace the one at Walnut and Locust streets, mainly to meet security requirements.
A five-member panel is expected to pick its "preferred site" by the end of July, GSA spokeswoman Gina Gilliam said. That recommendation will go to a GSA regional administrator for final approval.
All of this is to be done by the end of summer.
"My life's on hold," said Mike Billo, owner of row houses at 805 and 807 Green St., both of which would be taken for the courthouse. He said he has postponed renovating his rental unit and refurbishing his roof.
"You feel like you are in limbo," he said.
Controversy appears certain:
The GSA's decision almost assuredly will be controversial.
Does it bulldoze the diverse and historic neighborhood a stone's throw from the Capitol? Will it force about 100 mostly minority residents out of subsidized apartments at Cumberland Court? Or does it oust about 140 elderly and disabled people from the Jackson-Lick public housing tower?
Another question remains: What, if anything, will this mix of government investment and relocation pain do for the city's overall growth and development?
Such concerns might not matter, said experts who have followed the federal process.
"Typically, urban planners look at the development of the city and try to gain economic benefits from developing different areas," said David Zwifka, executive director of Historic Harrisburg Association, a preservation group. "That's not what comes first with the federal government."
The needs of the courthouse and its employees do, Gilliam said. But she said the GSA looks to "promote community development."
The GSA wants at least 21/2 acres for a building of eight to 14 stories, along with enough land to allow 50- to 100-foot security setbacks.
The GSA was going to consider only locations downtown. Because of Harrisburg's population density and flood plains, Gilliam said the agency explored 25 sites in the city.
This single concession could be the biggest break for future development in Harrisburg, said retired architect Martin Murray, formerly the head of Murray Associates Architects of Harrisburg.
The federal process led to two of the possible sites being situated north of Forster Street, the boundary for what's considered downtown.
Murray described Forster Street as "a wall" that has limited Harrisburg's growth to the north. The barrier was buttressed by monolithic state buildings, he said.
"They were like slabs that said, 'This is the end of the downtown,'" Murray said.
That the U.S. government is considering two tracts north of Forster could be a development boon of the magnitude of Strawberry Square and the office tower at 333 Market St. in the 1970s, Murray said.
"You have to lead with office buildings," Murray said. "That brings the people. It creates the traffic."
For that reason, Murray said he'd favor either option on North Sixth Street. The demise of the Jackson-Lick towers would be addition by subtraction, he said.
"They were badly conceived in the first place," he said. "I wouldn't shed a tear."
Seeking the 'least harm':
Reed has said Jackson-Lick is the alternative that would do the "least harm." Only one of the towers is occupied. Reed's office has said relocating its 140 residents would be easier than moving those in Cumberland Court.
Reed also sees the potential for further economic development north of Forster Street.
"Regardless of whether they choose Jackson-Lick or Cumberland Court, we expect the new courthouse to have a very substantial economic spinoff impact on the surrounding blocks and neighborhoods," said Randy King, Reed's spokesman.
"Neighboring property values are most assuredly going to be profoundly impacted for the better," he said.
The opposite is true of the Third and Forster site, according to Reed's office. King calls the proposal "simply unacceptable."
Yet GSA officials have expressed misgivings about Jackson-Lick, saying it is the most expensive option because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would demand replacement costs for the lost units. The GSA also has concerns about crime there.
Whichever site is chosen, the GSA is promising assistance in relocating residents. People won't have to move for at least two years, with construction scheduled to begin in 2009 and end in 2012,
That's little solace to Elizabeth Washington, 80, a resident of Jackson-Lick.
"We're too old to be moving about," she said. "It's got the old people all upset. They've taken no interest in us. They're only interested in what they want to do. All they can do is tear down."